Africa File

The Africa File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics. {{authorBox.message}}

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Africa File: Mali–Wagner Group deal threatens counterterrorism gains in the Sahel 

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

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Key takeaway: The lifting of counterterrorism pressure in West Africa’s Sahel region will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to intensify their efforts to take control of civilian populations and establish enduring havens in northern and central Mali. Strained relations between the French government and Mali’s postcoup government are complicating France’s planned drawdown of its counterterrorism mission. The Malian government’s pursuit of a security deal with Russian private military company Wagner Group will further disrupt counterterrorism efforts. The Mali-Wagner deal would advance Russia’s objectives in Africa, which include undermining and replacing French influence.

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: September 2021

View full map.

Source: Authors.

Read an overview of the Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa here.

French-Malian relations have become strained as Mali’s military junta consolidates power and France ends its counterterrorism mission in Mali. The junta ousted Mali’s civilian leaders in August 2020. The officers staged a second coup to solidify their power in May 2021, installing the coup’s leader as transitional president. French President Emmanuel Macron asserted that France will not work with Mali unless it transitions to democracy. France also suspended joint operations with the Malian military in June 2021. France resumed joint operations in July but has continued to pressure the junta to hold elections.

The planned French drawdown has also strained French-Malian relations. France plans to reduce Operation Barkhane, its counterterrorism mission in Mali, from 5,000 to 2,500 troops by early 2022. Barkhane will hand off some responsibilities to Task Force Takuba, a smaller European special operations mission. The remaining 2,500 French troops will support Task Force Takuba and Sahelian partners. France withdrew forces from several positions in northern Mali as part of the planned drawdown in early September 2021.

Malian officials have described this initial drawdown as “abandonment.” Malian officials are *skeptical about the French drawdown, suggesting France may “leave vast territories unprotected” and that Mali needs a “plan B,” a reference to the proposed deal with Russian private military company Wagner Group. French officials denied accusations of acting unilaterally, citing consultations between France, Mali, and other Sahelian countries. Mali’s transitional prime minister said Mali sought outside assistance to “to fill the gap” caused by the French drawdown in northern Mali. He also *accused France of “offering” Kidal in northeastern Mali to the Salafi-jihadi group Ansar al Din.

The Malian government will likely sign a security deal with Kremlin-backed private military contractor Wagner Group. Wagner Group will train the Malian military and protect senior Malian officials under the deal. Malian media *reported that Wagner Group will also protect two gold mines and one magnesium mine. Wagner may have deployed some personnel to Mali in August. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that the Malian government reached out to “private Russian companies” in response to the planned reduction of French forces in Mali. Lavrov *discussed security cooperation with the Malian foreign minister at the UN General Assembly on September 24.

The Malian junta is pursuing the Wagner deal to retain power amid *international *pressure to hold elections, which it has sought to postpone. Mali’s Transitional Council, led by the 2020 coup leaders, has taken other steps to preserve its position, including passing two bills to protect coup participants from prosecution and imprisoning the former transitional president and prime minister in May 2021. The junta likely seeks to *use a deal with Wagner to resist French pressure and *solidify its hold on power by diversifying its ties to foreign militaries. Mali’s foreign minister signaled on October 12 that the junta may *delay elections, citing security concerns and foreign interference.

The reported Wagner Group deal does not include counterterrorism support. The Wagner Group will provide only 1,000 troops under the deal, and they will focus on training, personal protection, and infrastructure security. Even if Wagner offered a “plan B” to replace the French counterterrorism mission, it is unlikely to match the level of capability of French forces in Mali. The French mission will downsize to 2,500 troops by 2022 under the current drawdown plan, with an additional 600 European special operations forces under Task Force Takuba. The French presence brings additional capabilities, including US logistical and intelligence support.

France may accelerate its drawdown from Mali due to the Wagner Group’s presence. The French foreign minister said Wagner Group’s presence is “incompatible” with the French presence in Mali. The French defense minister *said that the international community will not support Mali in counterterrorism in the event of a Mali-Wagner deal. France may stop joint military operations with the Malian military or even accelerate its drawdown in response to the Wagner Group’s presence in Mali.

European resistance to a Mali-Wagner deal may also cause other European countries to contribute fewer forces to Task Force Takuba or the UN mission in Mali. Smaller troop contributions could render Task Force Takuba unable to backfill withdrawing French forces. Estonia *stated it would withdraw its 95 soldiers if the deal goes through. Germany *called the agreement between Wagner and Mali “contradictory” to international efforts, while the United Kingdom said it is closely reviewing the situation. The French defense minister also traveled to the Czech Republic to discuss cooperation in the Sahel, likely indicating an attempt to preserve the Czech commitment to Takuba in response to the Wagner deal.

The Mali-Wagner deal benefits Russia, which is taking advantage of strained French-Malian relations to advance its campaign of challenging French influence in Africa. Prior Kremlin-backed security and influence missions have targeted the Central African Republic, Guinea, and Madagascar, where Russia perceived France as unwilling or unable to contest growing Russian influence. Russia’s strategic objectives in Africa include countering Western influence and reestablishing Russia as a global power, including through expanding the Russian or Russian-backed military footprint through security assistance. Reports that Wagner—which functions as a Kremlin foreign policy tool—is recruiting Russians for the Mali mission indicate a high level of official Kremlin support for the Mali deal.

The Mali deal also advances Russian economic and resource-acquisition objectives in Africa. Russian objectives in Africa include *creating new revenue for Kremlin associates through the exploitation of natural resources. Mali has gold deposits in the west and south and unexploited *manganese and uranium deposits in the north. Russia has a shortage of manganese, an important industrial mineral. Russia may also seek to increase its influence in the Sahel because of the uranium mines in Mali’s neighbor Niger, though the Kremlin is unlikely to be able to challenge the strong French-Nigerien military and economic relationship under current conditions.

A diplomatic crisis between France and Algeria may also complicate the French mission in the Sahel and reflects a broader weakening of French influence in northwestern Africa. Algeria closed its airspace to French military air traffic after French President Emmanuel Macron questioned whether Algeria existed “before French colonization” on October 2. France also halved the number of visas granted to Algerians in 2021. The airspace closure has required military aircraft to take a more circuitous route to French positions in the Sahel. This wrinkle alone does not derail Operation Barkhane but signals the fragility of French positions, including its primary base in Niger, should the France-Algeria and France-Mali relationships continue to deteriorate. 

Russia is positioned to capitalize on strained Algerian-French relations. Russia is expanding military relations with Algeria by selling weapons and equipment. Russia and Algeria held their first-ever joint exercise in the Russian Caucasus on October 3.

Forecast

Salafi-jihadi groups will exploit decreased counterterrorism pressure to expand and deepen their control of populations in northern and central Mali. Al Qaeda’s Sahel affiliate Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) seek to impose their harsh version of governance and have expanded into central Mali and northern Burkina Faso in recent years. Counterterrorism pressure has inhibited these groups’ more ambitious plans but has not addressed the conditions that allow them to gain traction—leaving both JNIM and ISGS well prepared to expand should this pressure lift.

In the most likely case, French forces will accelerate their drawdown and European partners will reduce their deployments to Mali, complicating the transition and creating gaps among counterterrorism forces in the Sahel. An accelerated drawdown would create vacuums as France repositions assets. France closed three bases in northern Mali in early September as part of its planned drawdown. (See Figure 2.) European and Malian forces are currently *slated to *replace the French forces at the three northern bases. European concern over a Wagner-Mali deal may jeopardize this effort.

Figure 2: French Operation Barkhane Troops Withdraw from Mali Bases

View full map.

Source: AEI’s Critical Threats Project and Andrew Lebovich, “Mapping Armed Groups in Mali and the Sahel: Operation Barkhane,” European Council on Foreign Relations, May 2019, https://ecfr.eu/special/sahel_mapping/.

Salafi-jihadi groups would capitalize on this reduced pressure to consolidate their positions and possibly surge attacks during the transition period. One potential outcome is a surge in attacks along the Malian-Nigerien border, where ISGS is active and has been targeting civilians and security forces.

In a more dangerous case, French forces will withdraw entirely without sufficient backfill from Task Force Takuba. The Malian junta could cut ties with France to capitalize on increased domestic animosity toward the presence of French forces. Seventy percent of Bamako’s population approves of the Wagner deal and 8 percent of the population favors French forces, according to a recent survey. Likewise, French domestic pressure could push the French government to withdraw more rapidly, particularly if French forces suffer further casualties in Mali and the Malian government continues to issue anti-France statements.

Salafi-jihadi groups would gain significant freedom of movement in the Malian countryside in this scenario. JNIM would likely prioritize entrenching itself in local societies and establishing governance, including a shari’a court system. It may also feel emboldened to increase pressure on the Malian government and regional forces to withdraw from northern and central Mali by conducting terror attacks in Bamako and other Sahelian capitals. Both JNIM and ISGS would also intensify ongoing efforts to expand their networks into neighboring coastal states.

 

Africa File: Political instability threatens counterterrorism gains in Maghreb, Sahel, and Horn 

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

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Protracted political crises in Libya and Somalia risk undercutting gains that have been made against Salafi-jihadi groups in recent years. An uptick in intermilitia clashes in Tripoli is a warning sign that the country’s fragile peace deal may not hold through and after elections in December. Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Libya has been slowly regaining capability, though it remains a shadow of its former self. In Somalia, a long-running political crisis surged again, risking renewed confrontation between security forces in Mogadishu and the drawing of resources away from the fight against al Shabaab. Separately, a military coup in Guinea is the latest in a string of coups and leadership changes across the Sahel region, underscoring the persistent weakness of local governments at a time when Salafi-jihadi groups are cementing their positions and increasing attacks on civilians.

In this Africa File:

  • Libya. Security is deteriorating in western Libya, indicating the interim government’s inability to control militias in Tripoli.
  • Somalia. The renewed political crisis in Somalia risks derailing the country’s elections and creating opportunities for al Shabaab to strengthen.
  • Ethiopia. Conflict is worsening the humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia.
  • Mozambique and Tanzania. Islamic State–linked insurgents are retreating southward after losing control of a port in northern Mozambique.
  • Sahel. Salafi-jihadi groups increased attacks on civilians in Mali in 2021. Unconfirmed reports claim the Islamic State’s leader in the Sahel was killed. The Guinea coup may affect counterterrorism efforts.

Latest publications:

  • The Salafi-jihadi movement. Katherine Zimmerman lays out the state of play for al Qaeda and the Islamic State 20 years after the September 11 attacks. Read her primer and view the graphic here.

Read Further On:

North Africa

East Africa

West Africa

Figure 1. The Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa: September 2021

View full map.

Source: Authors.

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]


Overview: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa

Updated August 26, 2021

The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is active across Northern, Eastern, and Western Africa and is expanding and deepening its presence on the continent (Figure 1). This movement, like any insurgency, draws strength from access to vulnerable and aggrieved populations. Converging trends, including failing states and regional instability, are creating favorable conditions for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion. Meanwhile, counterterrorism pressure relies on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding, and on states and local authorities that have demonstrated an inability to govern effectively. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 is a watershed moment for the global Salafi-jihadi movement that reaffirms the strategies of African al Qaeda affiliates and may energize ongoing insurgencies.

West Africa. The Salafi-jihadi movement has spread rapidly in West Africa by exploiting ethnic grievances and state weaknesses that include human rights abuses, corruption, and ineffectiveness. An al Qaeda affiliate co-opted the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali and has continued to expand southward through the Sahel region into central Mali and the peripheries of Burkina Faso. An Islamic State–linked group is active in the same area, particularly western Niger and parts of Burkina Faso.

Sahel groups have not yet plotted attacks outside West Africa but have sought to drive Western security and economic presence out of the region while building lucrative smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom enterprises. An al Qaeda–linked group in Mali is infiltrating governance structures, advancing an overarching Salafi-jihadi objective, and expanding into Gulf of Guinea countries. West Africa has become an area of focus for transnational Salafi-jihadi organizations, with rival jihadists now fighting for dominance in the Sahel. Meanwhile, political instability, particularly in Mali, threatens local and international counterterrorism efforts.

The Islamic State’s largest African affiliate is based in northwest Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—and conducts frequent attacks into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Boko Haram and an al Qaeda–linked splinter group are also active in this region. The death of Boko Haram’s longtime leader in May 2021 is weakening the group and benefiting the Islamic State’s Nigerian branch.

New instability in Chad, whose longtime president was killed in April 2021, may lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in both Mali and the Lake Chad Basin, where Chadian forces participate in regional counterterrorism efforts.

East Africa. Al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate and the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in East Africa, is vocal about its intent to attack US interests and has begun to plot international terror attacks. The group enjoys de facto control over broad swaths of southern Somalia and can project power in the Somali federal capital Mogadishu and regional capitals, where it regularly attacks senior officials. It seeks to delegitimize and replace the weak Somali Federal Government—a task made easier by endemic political dysfunction, corruption, and an ongoing constitutional crisis. Al Shabaab’s governance ambitions extend to ethnic Somali populations in Kenya and Ethiopia, and the group conducts regular attacks in eastern Kenya.

Al Shabaab is positioned to benefit from eroding security conditions in East Africa. Ethiopia’s destabilization is already having regional effects, including weakening counter–al Shabaab efforts in Somalia. The drawing down of the US and African Union counterterrorism missions in Somalia will also reduce pressure on al Shabaab.

The Islamic State has also penetrated the region. Islamic State branches are now active in northern Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Mozambique, bordering Tanzania. The insurgency caused French company Total to shutter a multibillion-dollar natural gas project in northern Mozambique that was the continent’s largest private investment. The Islamic State foothold in Mozambique also marks the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion into southern Africa.

North Africa. Salafi-jihadi groups in North Africa are at a low point, but the fragility and grievances that led to their rise remain. The Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent security vacuums allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to organize and forge ties with desperate and coerced populations. The Islamic State’s rise brought a peak in Salafi-jihadi activity in North Africa, particularly from its branches in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Counterterrorism pressure has weakened Salafi-jihadi groups across North Africa in the past five years.

The insurgencies in Libya and Sinai are active but contained, and terrorist attacks across the region have decreased. Libya’s political and security crisis will continue to create opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups, and severe instability or collapse in any North African state would likely bring the Salafi-jihadi threat back to the surface. The Tunisian political crisis that began in mid-2021 poses a potential threat to the country’s gains against the Salafi-jihadi movement.

North Africa


Libya

Security is deteriorating in western Libya, indicating the interim government’s inability to control militias in Tripoli. Clashes have broken out between multiple militias nominally aligned with the Government of National Unity (GNU) over control of state institutions. A militia formally aligned with the GNU’s Presidential Council has clashed several times with other western Libyan militias, an increase in engagements after sporadic clashes in June and July. The Presidential Council theoretically commands the western Libyan army, which comprises numerous militia groups under the GNU’s disjointed apparatus. Former Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al Serraj *formed the Presidential Council militia, known as the Stability Support Apparatus (SSA), in January 2021.

The SSA may be vying for control over state institutions. It stormed the GNU’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) headquarters and arrested an MOI aid on August 25. The MOI is tasked with ensuring the security of Libyan elections in December 2021. The SSA and the MOI-aligned Nawasi Brigade clashed at the Administrative Control Authority headquarters in Tripoli on August 31. The Administrative Control Authority oversees government performance and has the power to challenge appointments to public positions and dispute the control of other state institutions.

GNU political disputes may have caused some clashes. The SSA *clashed with a militia aligned with the GNU Ministry of Defense (MOD), the 444 Brigade, in southern Tripoli between September 3 and 4. Disputes within the MOD could have caused the clash. An MOD leader indicated that the fighting was aimed at curbing the activities of the 444 Brigade due to a 444 Brigade leader *failing to comply with orders. Broader political disputes may have also caused the clashes. GNU Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibeh appointed himself as the defense minister, a move that the Presidential Council has *contested. Dbeibeh also has close ties with the 444 Brigade.

The clashes could cause other Tripoli militias to mobilize in support of the SSA or 444 Brigade. A Zawiya militia arrived in southern Tripoli on September 3, likely to reinforce the 444 Brigade. Suspected SSA members targeted the same Zawiya militia in a drive-by shooting on August 26, injuring the militia’s leader. Similar clashes will likely occur throughout Tripoli, but an apology from an MOD leader and a GNU *investigation into the incident will likely deescalate the conflict in the short term.

Violence in Tripoli could extend toward the south after attacks on a major water supply in southwestern Libya. The Great Man-Made River (GMMR) station in southwestern Ash Shwayrif supplies water to several western cities, including Tripoli. Unidentified attackers bombed the GMMR station in Ash Shwayrif on July 29. An armed group forced the closure of the GMMR and *demanded the release of the former head of Libyan intelligence, Abdullah al Senussi, from Mitiga prison in Tripoli on August 11.

The group is likely affiliated with Senussi’s Magarha tribe. The Magarha tribe cut water to Tripoli and demanded the release of prisoners in April 2020. The recent clashes in Tripoli could extend toward Ash Shwayrif, where both GNU and eastern-based Libyan National Army militias have mobilized since August. The GNU released late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saadi Qaddafi, and seven other officials from the former regime in Tripoli on September 5. The GNU is positioned to release Senussi, which could prevent further escalation in Ash Shwayrif.

The Islamic State in Libya (IS-Libya) maintains a limited presence in western Libya but could take advantage of the fighting in Tripoli if clashes continue to escalate. GNU authorities arrested a senior IS-Libya commander in the western Libyan city of Bani Walid on September 7. IS-Libya is most active in southwestern and south-central Libya, but an escalation in militia clashes would reduce the day-to-day security operations in western Libya and could allow IS-Libya to conduct attacks in more populated areas such as Tripoli. IS-Libya has a history of targeting governmental institutions to exacerbate tensions but has not done so for several years.

East Africa

Somalia

A political crisis is escalating in Somalia. Somalia’s president and prime minister are locked in a power struggle over the prime minister’s dismissal of the country’s security chief. Political tensions last spiked in Mogadishu in April, when President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo attempted to extend his term. That crisis divided security forces in Mogadishu along clan lines. The renewed political drama threatens the organization of presidential and legislative elections this fall that are meant to avert a constitutional crisis. Unrest in Mogadishu draws security forces away from positions outside of the capital, where they are combating al Shabaab, and creates opportunities for al Shabaab to escalate attacks inside the capital.

Ethiopia

Conflict is worsening the humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia. The Ethiopian federal government and its partners—including forces from Eritrea and from Ethiopia’s Amhara regional state—is fighting with forces aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for control of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. The conflict has been ongoing since November 2020 and escalated in late June, when TPLF forces recaptured the Tigray regional capital and advanced outside of Tigray’s borders.

Both sides are now trading accusations of atrocities. Amharan officials accused TPLF forces of killing at least 120 civilians in early September. The accusations follow reports that Sudanese officials recovered bodies of Tigrayan civilians downstream from the conflict zone. Reports of direct attacks on civilians come alongside reports of growing hunger, with the World Food Programme stating that up to 7 million people in northern Ethiopia face acute food shortages. The UN recently accused the Ethiopian government of disrupting the delivery of food aid to the Tigray region.

Mozambique and Tanzania

Islamic State–linked insurgents are retreating southward after losing control of a port in northern Mozambique. Mozambican and Rwandan security forces recaptured a strategic port in northern Mozambique from Islamic State–linked militants on August 8 (Figure 2). Militants have held Mocímboa da Praia since August 2020. Militant attacks continued for two consecutive weeks, starting August 18, south of Mocímboa da Praia.

Mozambican forces captured eight militants near Pequeue on August 18. The militants may have been retreating south ahead of Rwandan-Mozambican operations in Mbau. The troops expelled militants on August 20 and *retook Mbau on August 21, but the area remains contested. Security forces launched operations against militants near Mbau on August 28. Militants also captured and killed 10 fishermen in Mucojo on August 28. Militants maintain the ability to attack security forces in Mocímboa da Praia from both the Nangade and Palma districts to the north.

 Figure 2. Key locations in northern Mozambique: September 2021

Source: Kathryn Tyson

A lone gunman who killed three police officers in Tanzania could have connections to the conflict in northern Mozambique, but evidence is limited. The man opened fire in the diplomatic quarter of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on August 25th before police killed him. Local police said the shooter was a terrorist. The Tanzanian inspector general speculated that the attack could be a response to Tanzania’s involvement in the South African Development Community forces in Mozambique (SAMIM). Mozambique’s president announced that SAMIM forces, including Tanzanian troops, arrived in Mozambique on August 9. Tanzania also announced it would *host a new Southern African Development Community counterterrorism center on August 18.

The Islamic State has not claimed responsibility for the attack, but the gunman may have carried out the attack in support of the group. An unofficial Islamic State media outlet promoted the Dar es Salaam attack and encouraged lone wolf attacks on August 25.[1] A pro–Islamic State media platform shared a video on August 28 allegedly showing the Dar es Salaam shooter lip-syncing an Islamic State chant a day before the shooting.[2]

West Africa

Sahel

 Salafi-jihadi groups increased attacks on civilians in Mali in the first half of 2021. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) released its quarterly report on August 30, covering trends in human rights violations and abuses in Mali from April 1 to June 30. Militants killed, injured, or abducted 527 civilians during this quarter, marking an overall increase of more than 25 percent from the first quarter. Attacks targeting civilians or their property occurred in several towns throughout central Mali (Figure 3). Burkina Faso and Mali announced on September 7 that they will mount joint military operations against Salafi-jihadi groups operating in response to the uptick in attacks.

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is more prone to targeting civilians and is responsible for some of the most lethal attacks against civilians in the Sahel in recent years, including record-breaking attacks in western Niger. Attributing recent attacks is difficult, however, particularly in northern Burkina Faso, where several Salafi-jihadi groups are active and do not regularly claim attacks. Ansar al Islam, a Burkina Faso–based group loosely aligned with Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), likely conducted an *attack killing 65 civilians and 15 Burkinabe security forces on August 18.

JNIM is also pursuing a strategy of pressure and negotiation to gain control over civilians in central Mali. Members of the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), a JNIM component, struck a *peace agreement with local leaders in central Mali’s Niono Circle on September 3, continuing a trend of negotiated settlements in this area. MLF members have also expanded their presence along the Mauritanian border by *intimidating civilians.

Figure 3. Selected locations of attacks on civilians in Mali: April 1–June 30, 2021

Source: Rahma Bayrakdar

French counterterrorism operations may have killed the leader of ISGS, according to unconfirmed reports. Scattered reports have emerged that French Barkhane forces *killed ISGS Emir Abu Walid al Sahrawi near central Mali’s Menaka Region along the Nigerien border on August 23. Sahrawi founded ISGS and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in May 2015. Neither French officials nor ISGS have confirmed reports of Sahrawi’s death.

Sahrawi’s death, if confirmed, would likely cause the leadership of ISGS to pass to one of his lieutenants. The leadership change could lead to some shifting in allegiance, particularly since many ISGS leaders are networked with other Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel. Sahrawi’s death is unlikely to collapse ISGS or significantly alter its trajectory.

A coup d’état in Guinea may have follow-on effects for counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel. Guinea’s president was ousted in a military coup on September 5. Potential further instability in Guinea would affect counterterrorism efforts in Mali and create vulnerabilities in Guinean territory. Guinea contributes 650 troops to MINUSMA in the Kidal Region in central Mali. Should Guinea recall its troops, security may worsen in Kidal, particularly because Chad—which also supplies forces to MINUSMA in this area—recently announced plans to withdraw 600 troops.

Salafi-jihadi groups may also take advantage of unrest in Guinea to target the country, though Guinea likely remains lower priority for them than other coastal countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Benin, where militants have become more active. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leaders *met in February 2020 to discuss the expansion of al Qaeda’s operations beyond Mali to establish a greater foothold in West Africa. JNIM is not yet active in Guinea, but the group’s leader has named Guinea as a target due to its contributions to MINUSMA.[3]


[1] SITE Intelligence Group, “Promoting Attack Near French Embassy in Tanzania, IS-aligned Unit Summons Lone Wolves to Strike,” August 25, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] SITE Intelligence Group, “Video Shows Alleged Dar es Salam Shooter Brandishing Gun, Lip-syncing IS Chant,” August 28, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] SITE Intelligence Group, “AQAP-Affiliated Newspaper Interviews Leader of Newly-Formed AQIM Branch in Mali,” April 6, 2017, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

View Citations

Africa File: African al Qaeda affiliates praise Taliban takeover

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

To receive the Africa File via email, please subscribe here.

Al Qaeda affiliates in Africa praised the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and reaffirmed their commitment to a similar strategy. The events in Afghanistan may energize insurgencies in Africa, where several al Qaeda affiliates are waging yearslong efforts to drive out foreign forces and collapse local governments. Al Qaeda’s leading affiliates in Africa—al Shabaab in Somalia and Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen in Mali—are not on the cusp of a rapid victory but will benefit from favorable conditions over time as they seek to destroy and replace governance structures. These conditions include endemic political dysfunction and the planned withdrawal of foreign counterterrorism forces.

In this Africa File:

  • Somalia. Al Shabaab drew parallels between itself and the Taliban. Al Shabaab and Somali forces are trading control of terrain in central Somalia.
  • Ethiopia. The warring sides in Ethiopia’s conflict are drawing in additional forces, indicating that the conflict will continue and likely spread.
  • Mozambique and Tanzania. A gunman killed five people near the French embassy in Tanzania’s capital. Mozambican and Rwandan security forces recaptured a strategic port city in northern Mozambique from Islamic State–linked militants.
  • Tunisia. Tunisia’s president extended his extraordinary powers. Salafi-jihadi groups have attempted to capitalize on Tunisia’s political crisis rhetorically but have not conducted attacks in the country.
  • Libya. The Islamic State in Libya claimed a third attack after a yearlong lull between June 2020 and June 2021
  • Sahel. Al Qaeda affiliates see the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a validation of their approach in the Sahel.
  • Lake Chad. Hundreds of Boko Haram militants surrendered to Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities, signaling the group’s continued fragmentation following the death of its leader.

Latest publications:

  • Reactions to Afghanistan. Al Qaeda affiliates outside Afghanistan, including African groups, may become energized and attempt to capitalize on the withdrawal of foreign forces. Read the analysis of regional players’ reactions to Afghanistan by the Critical Threats Project and Institute for the Study of War teams here.
  • Salafi-jihadi groups in Africa. Emily Estelle joins the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ “Into Africa” podcast to discuss the dangers of overemphasizing or underselling the ties between regional groups and global Salafi-jihadi networks. Listen here.
  • Salafi-jihadi groups in Africa. AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point hosted a debate on the significance of African jihadist groups joining international terror organizations. Watch the event here or listen here.

Read Further On:

East Africa

North Africa

West Africa

Figure 1. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa: July 2021

Source: Emily Estelle.

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]


Overview: The Salafi-jihadi threat in Africa

Updated August 26, 2021

The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is active across Northern, Eastern, and Western Africa and is expanding and deepening its presence on the continent (Figure 1). This movement, like any insurgency, draws strength from access to vulnerable and aggrieved populations. Converging trends, including failing states and regional instability, are creating favorable conditions for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion. Meanwhile, counterterrorism pressure relies on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding, and on states and local authorities that have demonstrated an inability to govern effectively. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 is a watershed moment for the global Salafi-jihadi movement that reaffirms the strategies of African al Qaeda affiliates and may energize ongoing insurgencies.

West Africa. The Salafi-jihadi movement has spread rapidly in West Africa by exploiting ethnic grievances and state weaknesses that include human rights abuses, corruption, and ineffectiveness. An al Qaeda affiliate co-opted the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali and has continued to expand southward through the Sahel region into central Mali and the peripheries of Burkina Faso. An Islamic State–linked group is active in the same area, particularly western Niger and parts of Burkina Faso.

Sahel groups have not yet plotted attacks outside West Africa but have sought to drive Western security and economic presence out of the region while building lucrative smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom enterprises. An al Qaeda–linked group in Mali is infiltrating governance structures, advancing an overarching Salafi-jihadi objective, and expanding into Gulf of Guinea countries. West Africa has become an area of focus for transnational Salafi-jihadi organizations, with rival jihadists now fighting for dominance in the Sahel. Meanwhile, political instability, particularly in Mali, threatens local and international counterterrorism efforts.

The Islamic State’s largest African affiliate is based in northwest Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—and conducts frequent attacks into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Boko Haram and an al Qaeda–linked splinter group are also active in this region. The death of Boko Haram’s longtime leader in May 2021 is weakening the group and benefiting the Islamic State’s Nigerian branch.

New instability in Chad, whose longtime president was killed in April 2021, may lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in both Mali and the Lake Chad Basin, where Chadian forces participate in regional counterterrorism efforts.

East Africa. Al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate and the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in East Africa, is vocal about its intent to attack US interests and has begun to plot international terror attacks. The group enjoys de facto control over broad swaths of southern Somalia and can project power in the Somali federal capital Mogadishu and regional capitals, where it regularly attacks senior officials. It seeks to delegitimize and replace the weak Somali Federal Government—a task made easier by endemic political dysfunction, corruption, and an ongoing constitutional crisis. Al Shabaab’s governance ambitions extend to ethnic Somali populations in Kenya and Ethiopia, and the group conducts regular attacks in eastern Kenya.

Al Shabaab is positioned to benefit from eroding security conditions in East Africa. Ethiopia’s destabilization is already having regional effects, including weakening counter–al Shabaab efforts in Somalia. The drawing down of the US and African Union counterterrorism missions in Somalia will also reduce pressure on al Shabaab.

The Islamic State has also penetrated the region. Islamic State branches are now active in northern Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and northern Mozambique, bordering Tanzania. The insurgency caused French company Total to shutter a multibillion-dollar natural gas project in northern Mozambique that was the continent’s largest private investment. The Islamic State foothold in Mozambique also marks the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion into southern Africa.

North Africa. Salafi-jihadi groups in North Africa are at a low point, but the fragility and grievances that led to their rise remain. The Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent security vacuums allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to organize and forge ties with desperate and coerced populations. The Islamic State’s rise brought a peak in Salafi-jihadi activity in North Africa, particularly from its branches in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Counterterrorism pressure has weakened Salafi-jihadi groups across North Africa in the past five years.

The insurgencies in Libya and Sinai are active but contained, and terrorist attacks across the region have decreased. Libya’s political and security crisis will continue to create opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups, and severe instability or collapse in any North African state would likely bring the Salafi-jihadi threat back to the surface. The Tunisian political crisis that began in mid-2021 poses a potential threat to the country’s gains against the Salafi-jihadi movement.

East Africa

Somalia

Al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, signaled support for the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Al Shabaab media outlets celebrated the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and drew parallels to Turkey’s presence in Somalia.[i] Al Shabaab outlets said that al Shabaab will capture Turkish vehicles supplied to the Somali government as the Taliban has captured US military vehicles in Afghanistan. Turkey *gave over 20 military vehicles to the Somali Defense Ministry for counter–al Shabaab operations on August 15. This anti-Turkish framing is a continuation of al Shabaab rhetoric and action. The group portrayed Turkey as a parasite in a statement claiming a suicide bombing targeting a Turkish-run training camp in Mogadishu in June 2021.[ii]

Al Shabaab and Somali security forces are trading control of terrain in central Somalia. The Somali National Army (SNA) and regional Galmudug State forces are waging *offensives against al Shabaab positions in the Mudug region, seizing strategic towns such as Bacadweyn and Qaycad. (See Figure 2.) Somali forces have escalated efforts to recapture towns from al Shabaab since July 12, when officials from Galmudug and Puntland states signed a joint agreement to counter al Shabaab in Mudug. Somali officials *reported that the SNA has killed over 200 al Shabaab militants in central and southern Somalia since July 2021. Al Shabaab claimed to mount a broad offensive against the SNA on August 17, killing 30 SNA troops in a single attack in Qaycad.[iii] SNA and al Shabaab have also competed for control of Amara, which al Shabaab recaptured from the SNA on August 24 and quickly lost to SNA forces on August 25. The SNA and supporting forces still aim to seize Harardhere, an al Shabaab stronghold. The US resumed airstrikes supporting Somali forces in Mudug in July after a many-month pause. The most recent US strike occurred near Amara on August 24.

Figure 2. Key locations in north-central Somalia: August 2021

Source: Authors.

Note: This map shows selected contested locations, not all al Shabaab or Somali military activity. For a map of key locations in this region in July 2021, see the prior version here.

SNA military offensives come amid delayed Somali elections and a fragile political and security situation in Mogadishu. The election cycle is scheduled to end on October 10, when a joint sitting of the two Somali parliament houses is expected to elect a new president for the federal government.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is investigating an attack on civilians. Somali officials reported that Ugandan AMISOM troops killed seven civilians during counter–al Shabaab operations in the Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia on August 10. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni confirmed Ugandan troops killed civilians in Somalia and announced those responsible were arrested on August 19. AMISOM pledged to investigate the killings on August 11 and plans to conclude investigations by September 6.

Ethiopia

The warring sides in Ethiopia’s conflict are drawing in additional forces, indicating that the conflict will continue and likely spread. The Oromo Liberation Army, an ethnic rebel group seeking self-determination for the Oromo people, announced a military alliance with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on August 11. The alliance raises the possibility of unrest and even fighting in the Oromo region, adding a second front to a conflict that is already fragmenting Ethiopia.

The current conflict began when the Ethiopian government intervened in Tigray in November 2020 after Tigrayan forces attacked a federal military base. TPLF forces recaptured the Tigray regional capital in June. The TPLF now seeks to expel external forces from northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region and force the Ethiopian government to recognize the TPLF as Tigray’s legitimate governing party.

Ethiopian federal forces and their allies now appear to be preparing to escalate the campaign against the TPLF. Eritrean forces, which had entered the Tigray conflict last year, are reportedly reentering the country just months after the Ethiopian government promised that Eritrean units would withdraw.

Mozambique and Tanzania

A Salafi-jihadi group may be responsible for an attack in Tanzania’s capital. A gunman killed five people, including three police officers, near the French embassy in Dar es Salaam on August 25. Tanzanian police reported that the attacker was Somali. The Tanzanian inspector general of police assessed that the attacker could have ties to the Salafi-jihadi insurgency in Mozambique. On August 25, an unofficial Islamic State media outlet celebrated the attack and encouraged more lone-wolf attacks.[iv]

Mozambican and Rwandan security forces recaptured a strategic port city in northern Mozambique from Islamic State–linked militants on August 8. Militants seized Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020. Mozambican and Rwandan security forces have also *expelled militants from towns near Mocímboa da Praia. The Mozambican government reported that Palma, another northern Mozambican port, is pacified, and civilians and local officials have returned to the area. Islamic State militants had besieged Palma in March–April 2021. The Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) and Mozambican forces *overtook Mocímboa da Praia with minimal Islamic State casualties, suggesting militants have retreated but may still have the capacity to conduct attacks throughout northern Mozambique.

About one thousand RDF troops arrived in northern Mozambique to lead counterinsurgency operations in July. The Southern African Development Community deployed approximately 1,500 troops, including Angolans, Botswanans, and Zimbabweans, to Mozambique on August 9.

Islamic State publications have reflected the shift toward Rwanda and other African nations as leaders of Mozambican counterinsurgency efforts. On August 5, an official Islamic State editorial rallied Islamic State fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique to fight against the new regional alliance.[v] A pro–Islamic State media campaign incited violence against central African Christians in Rwanda on August 12.[vi]

North Africa

Tunisia

Tunisia’s president extended his extraordinary powers indefinitely on August 23. On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the prime minister, froze parliament, and announced he would temporarily rule by decree. Protests broke out in Tunisia in July both for and against the president, and the Tunisian military has signaled support for the president’s actions. Tunisia’s political crisis is also part of a regional struggle over the role of political Islam; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have voiced support for Saied over the Ennahda, the Islamist political party that has led Tunisia’s parliament. Salafi-jihadi groups have attempted to capitalize on the crisis with rhetoric targeting democracy and political Islam. [vii] Salafi-jihadi groups have not attacked in Tunisia in August, however, indicating that their capabilities remain limited even in a period of increased strain on security forces. 

Libya

The Islamic State in Libya (IS-Libya) claimed a third attack after a yearlong lull between June 2020 and June 2021. An IS-Libya militant detonated a suicide vehicle–borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) outside a Libyan National Army (LNA) checkpoint in Zillah in south-central Libya on August 22, killing the attacker but no others.[viii] Zillah is located southeast of the former IS-Libya stronghold of Sirte and near oil fields previously damaged by IS-Libya attacks. This incident marked the second IS-Libya SVBIED attack in southern Libya, following a June 6 bombing that killed four LNA personnel in Sebha. IS-Libya also attacked an LNA militia near the Harouj Mountains on June 14. (See Figure 3).

IS-Libya’s recent SVBIED attacks are an indicator that the group is gaining strength. Its activity remains constrained to remote areas of Libya, however. One risk is that militants will seek to return to Sirte, the central Libyan coastal city that the Islamic State previously controlled. Security is contested in Sirte, and clashes between rival militias could create opportunities for militants to gain a foothold.

Libyan leaders may use the attack to delegitimize their political opponents before national elections in December 2021. A pro-LNA parliament leader *accused the Muslim Brotherhood of facilitating the August 23 attack—a common LNA refrain. The messaging is likely targeted at LNA rivals, such as former Defense Minister Salaheddin al Nimroush, whom the internationally recognized Libyan government appointed to lead a new security force on August 11. 

Figure 3. Libya locator map

Source: Authors.

West Africa

Sahel

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda–linked Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) see the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a validation of their approach in the Sahel. On August 23, AQIM—al Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate—and JNIM issued a joint statement congratulating the Taliban for its victory in Afghanistan.[ix] JNIM’s emir, Iyad Ag Ghaly, had praised the Taliban’s perseverance as a model for success in an August 10 statement a week before the fall of Kabul.[x]

JNIM escalated attacks and rhetoric against the UN force in Mali. JNIM claimed nine attacks against United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) troops from July 26–August 14 throughout central Mali.[xi] The group claimed these attacks were in support of Muslims living in northern Mali who suffer at the hands of MINUSMA and have previously protested against MINUSMA presence. JNIM also conducted a VBIED attack that killed at least 15 Malian soldiers in central Mali’s Mopti region on August 19.

Chadian troop withdrawal may provide opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel. Chad announced on August 21 plans to withdraw 600 troops from the Mali–Burkina Faso–Niger border region. Chad deployed 1,200 troops to the tri-border region in February to help French and Malian forces combat JNIM and Islamic State activity. The withdrawal of Chadian forces, which are the most effective Sahelian force participating in regional counterterrorism efforts, will lift pressure from Salafi-jihadi groups in the Lake Chad and Sahel regions.

Read more about how Chadian withdrawal threatens West African counterterrorism efforts here.

Salafi-jihadi groups have escalated attacks against civilians in the Sahel. Gunmen *attacked Burkinabe security forces as they relocated civilians from a village in northern Burkina Faso on August 18, killing 65 civilians and 15 Burkinabe security forces. The perpetrator of the attack is unclear, and multiple Salafi-jihadi groups are active in this part of Burkina Faso. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is responsible for some of the most lethal attacks against civilians throughout the Sahel region in recent years. Some indicators point toward Ansar al Islam, a JNIM-aligned Burkinabe group that lacks a media presence. A Mauritian newspaper reported that JNIM claimed the attack, though the group has not issued an official statement. JNIM has claimed previous Ansar al Islam attacks but is not likely to claim responsibility for an attack that caused high civilian casualties. JNIM presents itself as more lenient than ISGS by eschewing large-scale attacks on civilians.

Read a study of Ansar al Islam’s origins and objectives here.

ISGS continues to target civilians in Tillabéri Region in western Niger, likely to gain resources and pressure civilians not to cooperate with authorities. Suspected ISGS militants most recently attacked a Tillabéri mosque during prayer time on August 20, killing 17 civilians. The group also killed at least 37 civilians in an attack in a nearby town on August 16. The increase in attacks on civilians *correlates with the start of the rainy season in June, as Salafi-jihadi groups have since targeted *civilians working in fields.

Lake Chad

Hundreds of Boko Haram militants surrendered to Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities. Boko Haram has been fragmenting since its leader’s death in May 2021. Some militants and commanders have defected to the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA), but many others have turned themselves in under an ongoing rehabilitation program. The Nigerian government claims that over 1,000 militants have surrendered. Cameroon also reported dozens of surrenders.

The Boko Haram defections solidify ISWA’s position as the dominant Salafi-jihadi group in the Lake Chad Basin. ISWA has established governance structures, including *implementing new taxation laws, in areas where Boko Haram was previously the more active group. ISWA is already conducting consistent attacks in northern Cameroon and will likely cement and expand its presence in northern Nigeria, southern Niger, and northern Cameroon.


[i] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Says U.S. Defeat in Afghanistan is Fate Turkey Awaits in Somalia,” August 17, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[ii] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Official for Banaadir Region Speaks on Camp TURKSOM Suicide Bombing, Portrays Turkey as Parasite,” June 15, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iii] SITE Intelligence Group, “Shabaab Claims 30 Deaths in Single Attack in Central Somalia, Repulsing Attacks on Positions in Bay and Mudug,” August 18, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iv] SITE Intelligence Group, “Promoting Attack Near French Embassy in Tanzania, IS-aligned Unit Summons Lone Wolves to Strike,” August 25, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[v] SITE Intelligence Group, “IS Rallies Fighters in DR Congo and Mozambique Amidst Enemy Drive for Regional Alliance,” August 10, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[vi] “Pro-IS Media Units Launch Propaganda Campaign Inciting Against Christians in Rwanda,” August 19, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[vii] SITE Intelligence Group, “IS Expresses No Surprise with Political Turmoil in Tunisia, Takes Opportunity to Slam al-Qaeda,” August 2, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[viii] SITE Intelligence Group, “IS Claims Car Bombing at LNA Checkpoint in Zalla,” August 23, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[ix] SITE Intelligence Group, “AQIM and JNIM Issue Joint Statement Congratulating Taliban, Promoting its Victory as Justifying Jihad,” August 23, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[x] SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Leader Discusses Perceived French Military Failure and Taliban Success, Calls on Lone Wolves to Strike Enemies,” August 10, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[xi] SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Claims 9 Attacks on MINUSMA Forces with Explosives and Mortars, 7 of Them in Aguelhok,” August 18, 2021, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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